BWW Review: Hats Off to Lyric Theatre's Stellar Production of CROWNS
Some musicals or plays can be a little bit difficult to pin down or describe and Regina Taylor's Crowns, now playing at Lyric Theatre's Plaza stage is in that category. The program's Director's Notes say, in part, that the musical is "presented as a jukebox musical," which it is in that it uses previously recorded songs (in this case, gospel music) woven into a plot, but that doesn't tell the whole story. To say that it's a "show about hats," would be a huge oversimplification and a disservice to a show that is so much more than that.
Written by Regina Taylor, Crowns is adapted from a book titled Crowns: Portraits of Black Women in Church Hats, by Michael Cunningham and Craig Marberry. The coffee table book features black and white photos of a wide variety of women in their hats and the potential in that source material should not be underestimated. Taylor has taken the women pictured there and condensed all of their stories into six living, breathing characters on stage, five of whom are members of the same church community in South Carolina. One of them women, Mother Shaw, is joined by her granddaughter, Yolanda, a former resident of Brooklyn who moves to South Carolina after the murder of her brother. After her arrival, Yolanda is introduced to the church women, who regale her with many stories about their hats, as she struggles to find herself and her identity in this unfamiliar new place.
Truthfully, what Taylor has created doesn't feel like a traditional musical or even a jukebox musical, really. It's more of an evening of storytelling with gospel music sprinkled in. As for the stories themselves, they are, as you would expect, hit and miss. There are real high points, with stories that are extremely funny and others that are extremely sad and touching. At other moments, though, stories go on too long or become dull or boring, which you really can't avoid when you've got so much talking and storytelling going on. Some of the stories are bound to be better than others.
As for the content of those stories, it's true, they are almost all about hats, which will likely put off some audience members who just don't want to keep hearing about hats over and over. Taylor is asking us to look deeper than that, though, and see the stories as more than just being about hats. These women are talking about history, society, cultural identity, self-esteem, religion, pride, tradition and love, among other things. There's much more here to learn about these women and their hats, in terms of why they wear the hats, what the hats mean to them and how the hats impact them, their loved ones and their lives.
While Taylor's skill as a storyteller is obvious, she does make some mistakes here in terms of writing for the stage, specifically. One of the rules of playwriting is "Show, Don't Tell," and that is thrown out the window completely here. Almost the entire play is telling, with little to no showing at all, and the few moments where we do see a scene played out are very well done and leave us wanting more of that. It also would have been nice to have the tragedy and the drama juxtaposed in a more effective way. The first act is mostly fun and comic while the second act is much heavier, more serious and tragic, making it feel like an entirely different show and making the whole thing uneven or off-balance. It also would be nice to have less talking and more singing in general. There are long stretches with just talking, it would be better to have the music sprinkled in more evenly throughout the show. Transitions into and out of songs, the weaving of the songs into the story arc, are also not always as strong as they could be.
Director W. Jerome Stevenson does a mostly excellent job holding all of these different elements together. There are some moments when the pace lags and things slow down too much, but overall he keeps things energetic and engaging. He gives each of the women their own moments to shine and have the spotlight and also brings them together in a perfect ensemble. His crafting of the different moments, both tragic and comic, is also excellent in terms of finding the right tone and tenor for each.
Stevenson has assembled a wonderful cast for this production and I dare you not to fall in love with each and every one of them. Ashley Marie Arnold gets things started by showing off her impressive rap skills and later shows off an equal ability with her beautiful singing voice, which quivers with real emotion when she sings "One of Them." Although the writing of her journey is uneven, she gives a wonderful performance of the turmoil of this young woman and her eventual joy in getting in touch with herself and her identity.
As her grandmother, Mother Shaw, M. Denise Lee is bold and brassy, with a voice that just about blows the roof off the place. Any time she takes the lead in a song, she immediately demands the audience's attention with her vocal talent. She also creates a beautiful softer, deeper side to her character, which comes out more during the second half. As with all of these characters, the glimpses we get into their inner lives leave us wanting to know more about them.
That is especially true of the other women, all of them get to tell great stories and sing beautifully, but the writing never lets us get to know these characters nearly as well as we want to. We know, for example, that Kizzie Ledbetter's Mabel is a pastor's wife, but that's about all we find out. Ledbetter is hilarious and has a couple of the show's storytelling highlights, especially when she talks about hat etiquette, such as never touching the hat, never asking to borrow he hat, don't knock the hat off her head and make sure to hug properly when wearing a hat.
Kimberly M. Oliver's Velma is, we hear at one point, a funeral director, which sounds really interesting but we don't get much backstory about that. We do, though, get lots of the wonderful Oliver's attitude, charm and charisma. She has a fantastic stage presence and, when she sings, her lovely voice reaches out and wraps you in warmth and joy. We know even less of the other two women's characters. Delanie Phillips Brewer is adorable and hilarious as Wanda, who has many of the show's funniest moments. She's also always adding great attitude and focus to every scene, even when she's in the background. Nakeisha McGee, so great in the recent Rock of Ages, is underused here as Jeanette, but still brings her beautiful voice and wonderful personality to every moment.
There is one male member of the cast, Derrick Cobey, who stands in for all the men in the lives of these women. Cobey has a huge stage presence with a big, deep and resonant singing voice. He makes for a perfect preacher, easily believable as somebody who would lead a congregation in prayer and song. He also nails some of the smaller moments, for example, when he plays the husband of one of the women who just won't stop filling their house with hats. His comic ability is as great as his singing voice.
Overall, the weak link in this production may be Uldarico Sarmiento's set design. The enormous, ramshackle wall is nondescript and doesn't add anything to the production or do anything to really set the scene or location. It could be the inside wall of any dilapidated building in the south, or anywhere else (we can assume it's supposed to be a church), but it doesn't help to create the world of the play and is mostly a distraction. Instead, the excellent lighting design by Weston Wilkerson is what creates the setting, the world, of the play, and does it very well. From shadows playing on the wall that put us in a certain place to lights standing in for camera flashes, Wilkerson uses the tools at his disposal to wonderful effect. Jeffrey Meek's costume designs are also wonderful, bright and colorful, adding to the joyousness of the show.
It is a show that is both joyous and one that may split audiences, in the sense that some will love and some will hate it, with perhaps very few who are in the middle. That's no reason not to see what it a beautifully realized and fantastically performed production filled with gorgeous singing and wonderful storytelling.
Crowns runs through February 25 at the Lyric Theatre's Plaza stage, at 1725 NW 16th St. in Oklahoma City. Show times are Wednesday and Thursday at 7:30pm, Friday at 8:00pm, Saturday at 2:00pm and 8:00pm and Sunday at 2:00pm. Single tickets to Crowns start at just $25. For more information, visit LyricTheatreOKC.org or call Lyric's box office at (405) 524-9312.
Pictured: The cast of Crowns at Lyric Theatre. Photo by KO Rinearson.